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Aerosol products at higher risk for benzene, says scientist who spurred recalls

Unilever is recalling dry shampoo aerosol products sold nationwide because they may contain elevated levels of benzene, a human carcinogen. The recall is the latest of half a dozen so far this year, with the cancer-causing chemical showing up in products including deodorant, hand sanitizer and sunscreen.

People should take the benzene-related recalls seriously, as they involve a far more dangerous contaminant than most, according to David Light, CEO of Valisure, an independent lab in New Haven, Connecticut, that alerted the Food and Drug Administration to its findings of benzene in sunscreen sprays last year. 

“Benzene is such a bad molecule — it’s at the very top of the FDA’s list of 70-some solvents not to use,” Light told CBS MoneyWatch, adding that unlike with some chemicals, “there’s no argument about whether or not it causes cancer in human beings.”

That’s not to say anyone who has used one of the recalled products will get cancer, emphasized Light, a biotech entrepreneur and scientist. Still, “Benzene should not be confused with a lot of other areas of concern. This is a very problematic compound, and it shouldn’t be ignored,” he said. 

“Even small amounts constitute big action,” added Light, citing the global recall that ensued after benzene was found in bottles of Perrier mineral water more than three decades ago. 

Aerosol-type products are more at risk of containing benzene than the general sphere of consumer products, as are petroleum-derived products such as gels, lotions, creams and sunscreens, said Light.

The chemical is not an ingredient in any of the recalled products, but likely came as the result of other petroleum products such as butane, which if not refined properly can end up containing other components like benzene, Light explained.

“Unfortunately the more we looked, the more we found,” he said of Valisure’s tests, which late last year petitioned the FDA for product recalls after it detected benzene in 54% of the 108 batches from 30 brands of body spray products.  

The latest recall includes dry shampoo aerosol products made before October 2021 from brands Dove, Nexxus, Suave, TIGI (Rockaholic and Bed Head), and TRESemmé, the company said in a notice published last week by the FDA. (See here for a complete list of recalled products and UPC codes.)

An internal probe by Unilever identified the propellant as the source, and the company worked with its propellant suppliers to address the issue, it stated. 

People who purchased the affected aerosol dry shampoo products should stop using them and visit UnileverRecall.com for reimbursement instructions. 

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Photo of some products recalled by Unilever.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration


The recall is the second this year for Unilever involving a product possibly containing benzene. The conglomerate sells roughly 400 products around the globe, from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

Exposure to benzene can result in cancers including leukemia and blood cancer of the blood marrow, as well as life-threatening blood disorders. Daily exposure to benzene in the recalled products at the levels detected in testing “would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences,” Unilever said.

Commonly found chemical

One of the most commonly made chemicals in the U.S., benzene is present in gasoline and cigarette smoke, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People are most typically exposed by breathing the chemical in the air, but they can also absorb it into their bodies by touching petroleum products, or by eating or drinking contaminated food or beverages. 

Unilever in late March recalled two Suave 24-hour protection aerosol antiperspirants after an internal review found slightly elevated levels of benzene in some samples. 

Four other companies have recalled products this year after finding benzene in samples, and more than half a dozen recalls came for the same reason last year

In December, for instance, Procter & Gamble recalled aerosol dry shampoo and conditioner spray products from six brands sold nationwide after finding benzene in some of them. 

But benzene is not the only cancer-causing chemical raising concern for users and makers of personal-care products. 

A lawsuit filed Friday against L’Oreal alleges that chemicals in the French company’s hair straighteners caused a woman’s uterine cancer. The suit over “phthalates and other endocrine disrupting chemicals” came days after a study linking the use of such products to uterine cancer.

L’Oreal did not respond to a request for comment.

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